Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Miracle Worker (2000)

2000, 90m, Disney Production

Everybody has heard of Helen Keller and her name is part of the lexicon. I too had never grasped the dimension of the miracle that her life represents. It is difficult to imagine the situation of an intellectually precocious child who at the pre-lingual stage of nineteen months loses hearing and sight and has only touch and smell to navigate by. It is scarcely imaginable that she became a writer, a social activist and a philosopher and even won the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The movie is only about the first step of this Odyssey. As though by destiny she encountered a teacher as committed as Anne Sullivan. We are introduced to Helen after her impairment as a violent, disturbed and unmanageable child--"a little devil". Her family, having consulted all manner of doctors and quacks (this was the 1880s) and come to the end of the tether is considering her commitment to an institution. Their dilemma, torn between love and helplessness, is poignantly etched. The movie describes the arduous process as she emerges from her isolation and learns to communicate through the language of letters of the alphabet traced by using the fingers. There s a highly allegorical sequence where Helen feels the wonder of a bird breaking the shell and opens out to the universe. The film climaxes with her learning her first word--the tactile equivalent for water-- after which her development is at a torrential pace. She was later, among the many dimensions of her achievement, to become a master of words.

The movie is a simple if remarkable story told straightforwardly and well. Hallie Eisenberg as Helen gives a phenomenal performance by an actress less than ten years old. We also have a portrait of a teacher possessed by an unquenchable commitment and faith. The film with it's simple theme of facing unsurmountable adversity succeeds with its message of hope and optimism. This is certainly a film in which the what-it's-about takes precedence over the how. I did not sit down to see this for directorial flourishes or camera acrobatics but to learn about and draw inspiration from the life of Helen Keller and this expectation was admirably satisfied. Content is certainly no less important than form, style and camera wizardry.

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